Troublesome, but well worth the trouble

Reviewed by Anna Porter
Globe and Mail, July 17, 2011

When Imre Kertesz was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for literature, there was an almost universal eyebrow-raising “who?” Even in Hungary, where Kertesz has lived and worked most of his life, few people knew the name. His novel, Fatelessness, had been rather quietly published in Hungarian in 1975; the English translation did not appear until 1992. The novels that followed failed to garner the kind of literary adulation afforded other Hungarian writers, such as Peter Esterhazy, whose star, despite recent attacks, is still aglow, or George Konrad, who seemed to be the voice of the silenced writer during the communist years.

The Nobel Prize jury’s choice of Kertesz was explained in their citation: “for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” Kertesz’s fiction, essays and speeches all converge on one common theme: the Holocaust, the most barbaric fact of the 20th century and the one terrible, inescapable event that weighs on those with memory or imagination. Kertesz, like the young boy at the heart of Fatelessness, had been a prisoner of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Fiasco, the story that follows Fatelessness, was published in Hungarian in 1988. While German literary critics have studied and analyzed Kertesz’s style and substance, it has taken 23 years for this extraordinary masterpiece to find its way into English. Once you start reading Fiasco, it is easy to see why U.S. publishers stayed away from it. In an interview, Kertesz said that Americans prefer light, fluffy entertainment – this book certainly does not fit that mould.

In both style and substance, this is a very European book. In style, because the author repeats and re-examines, often in minute detail, the everyday observations and events that form a human life. In substance, because he is writing the only book he can write – one about the Holocaust – yet it is a novel that cannot be written, as the experience of that destruction cannot be transformed by the imagination; nor can it be resolved, or explained, or allowed to create heroes and villains. The villains were and continue to be just us: human beings who perpetrated unspeakable acts upon other human beings. In this sense, it is impossible to portray Ilse Koch, the Beast of Buchenwald, as anything but the diligent, dutiful functionary whose job happened to be murder. As it is impossible to portray the survivors as heroes. They are, as Kertesz sees, the most burdened of all.

The novel begins with a writer, “the old man,” who is desperately, anxiously trying to write a book – as writing is the only talent he possesses. There are constant interruptions: his mother, his wife, his wandering thoughts, the recent rejection of his novel. He searches among his story ideas in an old grey file under a large grey rock, and finds there what forms the second part of the novel: a novel titled Fiasco.

In this, a man called Koves returns to his homeland after a long absence, to find that the faceless, secretive dictatorship he had left behind is still in charge and that the incomprehensible, utterly pointless events that formed part of daily life here are still the expected reality. It is a nightmare in which the central character is “fateless,” unable even to guess why decisions about him are made, by whom and where. It is a world that would easily fit into a Kafka or Camus novel, a world in which no one is entitled to reasons. Those wearing the uniforms of the totalitarian regime have no idea why they their orders are what they are. They, and the other inhabitants of this all-too-familiar world, must choose between becoming victims or perpetrators. No third option exists. What Kertesz is creating with his exacting, measured prose is the narrow, constrictive universe of man under the rule of a dictatorship.

At the end of the novel, the two stories meet and the novel resolves itself under the original grey rock. “I can only write the one novel it is given me to write,” Koves explains to a friend. But the book is, surprisingly, accepted by a publisher. Koves and the author are left to ponder the inevitable fact that this, too, “will become a book among other books, which shares a mass fate of all books, waiting for the chance that the glance of a rare customer may fall upon it.”

In the last chapter, Koves, or the author, asserts that he will keep writing, as this is what he must do, much like Sisyphus, the ancient Greek who was condemned to roll a huge rock uphill till the end of his days – in this version, he had not yet noticed that the burdensome rock had worn down to a pebble.It is well worth the effort to read Fiasco and think hard about its profound and disturbing messages.